Putting the ‘Art’ in Cartography: 20th Century Female Mapmaking Pioneers

Arquivo em: Map Printing / August 13, 2018

Contributing to the world of mapmaking for centuries, yet working behind the scenes without recognition, female cartographers have gifted the world with an amazing array of data collection methods and mapmaking techniques. Influencing political and social agendas alongside the mapmaking industry with their work, over the course of the 20th century, female cartographers flocked to the mapmaking industry in larger numbers than ever. Why the boom? During this time period, the aesthetic mastery of female cartographers often began with a background in the arts, because before the women’s liberation movement, women weren’t allowed access to technical cartography training – save for a brief period during WWII. This way of learning shaped the work of female cartographers, who produced many aesthetically masterful pieces…  


Black History Maps

Louise E. Jefferson, Americans of Negro Lineage, Friendship Press, 1946.
One of the greatest pictorial mapmakers of the early 20th century, Louise E. Jefferson learned drawing and calligraphy from her father, who was a calligrapher himself at the U.S. Department of Treasury. Taking lessons at Howard University in the 1930s and later Hunter College in New York, Jefferson not only continued in her father’s footsteps, but broke major ground in the field for women of color. Her early days weren’t easy. She made very little from freelance work and subsequent sales and constantly encountered racism. She eventually found regular work at Friendship Press, the publishing division of the National Council of Churches, where she completed some of her finest work, including pictorial maps of the Africa, India, and China, and U.S. maps such as the one above. Remarkable for its time and drawn with careful, vivid detail, it featured black workers in a less cartoonish, stereotypical fashion than was typical in popular representations at the time. Jefferson’s superb work eventually earned her a position as the art director at Friendship Press. A founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild, she was possibly one of the first women of color to hold such a position.


Mystery Maps

Ruth Belew, Nightmare Town, Dell #379, 1950, Dead Yellow Women, Dell #308, 1949, and The Creeping Siamese, Dell #538, 1951.

Though Ruth Belew was a prolific Chicago-based illustrator of paperbacks in the mid-20th century, very little is known about her. Creating over 150 ‘map-backs,’ such as those above, for printing on the back of thrift addition romances and mysteries, her illustrations were quite effective in luring readers to the books, of which Dell published about 600 in total. Belew drew the maps at twice their publication size on cardboard, later sending them to a lithographic colorist for painting. Unfortunately, her name appeared nowhere on the maps or books that sold the vivid stories, thus her history, alongside her work, remains a mystery to this day.


Sea Floor Maps: Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, 

Physiographic Diagram of the Western Pacific Ocean. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America, 1971.
Thousands of women heeded the call for mapmakers after men were sent off to fight for WWII. Called ‘Millie the Mappers’ or ‘Military Mapping Maidens,’ thousands became involved, producing much needed, up-to-date maps of strategic territories. The war also presented opportunities for women in classrooms, filling seats left empty by men. Cartographer Marie Tharp seized one such seat in the University of Michigan’s geology program, taking a position as a research assistant to Columbia PhD student Bruce Heezen, who was collection bathymetric data on the ocean floor, post-graduation. Tharp’s skill at analyzing data and rendering drawings quickly turned her into a partner – one who constantly battled facts with Heezen. Among them: The idea of tectonic plates and continental drift, which Heezen once rudely dismissed as ‘girl talk.’ After a year, however, Tharp convinced Heezen, their collective work eventually resulting in the world’s first detailed physiographic map of the ocean floor of the Atlantic. Now iconic in the ocean sciences, though Tharp’s contributions in research and artistry were a huge part of the project, they remained largely unrecognized until much later in her life.

map printing

How will you leave your footprint in the map printing industry? Safeguard your superb design with the industry-leading print services of MapPrinter. Discover new ways to help your map shine today.